General — 30 January 2009
Hundreds of parents convened on the campus of the prestigious Northside Catholic high school, Pallotti High School, in Belize City at 3:00 this evening to collect their children’s report cards. But it was no ordinary report card day. More than getting their routine rundown of how their children are doing in school, much of the meeting with parents today centered on the controversy of a Supreme Court injunction that has ordered the school to take back a 4th form student, 17, after she faced her second suspension – an automatic expulsion – last year, over allegations that she had broken the school’s stern moral code.
On Tuesday morning, Supreme Court Justice Minnet Hafiz granted an injunction ordering that the student should be taken back in the classroom, but when the student returned to school on Wednesday, reports surfaced that teachers had staged a protest against the return of the student and refused to teach for the entire day. The school’s public phone was also reportedly closed off from students.
Amandala was unable to speak with the high school’s Principal, Sister M. Clara Teul, SAC, about the allegations. Office personnel told us that she was out for the day.
We were, however, successful in reaching the Vice Principal, Mrs. Eleanor Hulse, who told us that the school cannot comment on the issues, but would soon issue a press release, after consulting with its lawyers.
According to Hulse, allegations of a teachers’ strike being in force on Wednesday are false, and she told us today that the school is complying with Justice’s Hafiz’s injunction, and classes resume as normal.
The injunction application was heard ex parte, and so the school was not represented in the proceedings, and did not lay its defense on the desk of the judge. We are advised that Legal Aid, which is handling the case, intends to file a substantive application calling on the court to undertake a judicial review of the student’s expulsion.
(The Legal Aid application, we are told, would charge that the school violated the student’s constitutional rights in not allowing her a fair chance to defend herself against the allegations, and that due process was not engaged before she was punished.)
Amandala is reliably informed that the student had already had a suspension prior to last December’s incident, when she was allegedly confronted on campus by a woman over a relationship with her husband (with whom she has 7 children). If the allegations are true, it would amount to a violation of Pallotti’s school rules, which stipulate that students are not even supposed to have boyfriends. After the incident, the student was suspended—making a second suspension. Under school rules, two suspensions equal an automatic expulsion.
Since the student was in her final year of high school when the expulsion took effect, there were justifiable concerns that she would not be able to sit her CXC exams, and it was disclosed at this evening’s meeting that teachers had been helping her prepare for exams, on their own time, on weekends.
We understand that for the most part, parents at today’s meeting support the school’s stance and urged the school to stand its ground, because one of the reasons they have chosen to send their girls to the all-girls school is because of the strict level of discipline. They believe that allowing the student back has, in effect, undermined their ability to enforce the school’s rules, which were reviewed at today’s meeting.
As to the alleged lock-in of students, sources say that teachers were present in the classrooms on Wednesday, and the explanation given to justify why they did not teach was that they were dealing with CXC matters and report cards. Mrs. Hulse, the school’s vice principal, went on record with us today to say that the allegations that teachers were protesting the return of the expelled student with a strike, and that the student was expelled for a pregnancy, were false.
When we spoke with him today, Jaime Panti, president of the Belize National Teachers’ Union (BNTU), expressed concern over the precedent that this case sets, but he also underscores the importance of complying with orders of the court, as violations could lead schools to be held in contempt.
Panti says there is a serious need for schools to strike the right balance – ensuring that educational goals are met through discipline and regulations, but they must be in concert with the provisions of the Education Act and the Belize Constitution, and mechanisms must be found to reach a common ground to ensure that the rights of all parties are respected.
He described the recent events as a “rude awakening” for the Ministry of Education and grant-aided schools that formulate regulations without seeking legal advice on sensitive matters.
As to the implications arising out of this case, Panti said that it indeed sets a precedent and has “un-measurable” implications, as the door has now been opened for other institutions to be taken to court.
We understand the school officials had sought the advice of the Belize District Education Office; however, our attempts to reach that office today for comment proved futile.